CAIRO - Riot police moved into Egypt's main Islamic university on Saturday, firing tear gas and breaking up a strike by students that threatened to disrupt midterms. One student was killed in the melee, an administration building was torched, and students fled from exam rooms.
Police say they entered eastern Cairo's Al-Azhar campus, the site of frequent clashes in recent weeks, and deployed around other Egyptian universities to prevent supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi from intimidating other students trying to take the tests.
Pro-Morsi activists have called for an exam boycott but deny government claims that they threatened anyone.
Students at al-Azhar, a stronghold of Morsi supporters, have been protesting for weeks against his ouster and a subsequent state crackdown, which last week saw his Muslim Brotherhood group declared a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood dismisses the label and has vowed to keep up its protests against Egypt-military backed authorities.
Hossam Eissa, who is deputy prime Minister and minister of higher education, said authorities will go after those he said were financing non-peaceful protests on campuses, and accused the Brotherhood of seeking to derail exams.
The government is intensifying its crackdown on Brotherhood and Morsi supporters ahead of a Jan. 14-15 constitutional referendum they see as a milestone in the transition plan. Authorities fear Morsi supporters would seek to derail the key vote, through protests or by violent means.
University professors and security officials accused protesting students on Saturday of blocking entrances to classes and harassing students as they made their way into the campus.
A statement from the Interior Ministry, in charge of the police, said students stormed several buildings on campus to "terrorize students and faculty."
The ministry statement said that the attack prompted the police to move in to disperse the crowd, and students then set the Faculty of Commerce on fire.
Aya Fathy, a student spokeswoman, disputed the officials' claim, saying the students were protesting peacefully. She said police moved in to break up protesters outside the faculty building, firing indiscriminately and killing student Khaled el-Haddad.
Footage from TV stations and social media websites showed the campus as a battleground. Flames rose from the three-story building, with rooms inside badly torched. Pitched battles pitting police against rock-throwing students left the campus deserted, strewn with rocks and debris.